Can Local News Websites Shift From Annoying Their Readers to Serving Them?

Getting Readers to Pay Will Require More Attention to User Experience

The frustrations of local journalists over the presentation of their work on news websites was summed up recently in a tweet by British writer Katie Taylor:

Indeed, too many local news websites look like scrambled piles of puzzle pieces: slow-loading ads, thumbnail links to articles irrelevant to the paper’s readership and pop-ups asking readers to subscribe.

“It’s a mess,” said Rich Gordon, digital innovation director at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “There are some rules for good user experience that are pretty well established: fast-loading pages, a clear navigation, mobile-friendly design. These are basics.”

User experience problems are not inconsequential annoyances. Each time a reader has to wade through obtrusive ads to get to an article, the news organization’s brand is damaged, said news industry analyst Ken Doctor.

When you see this kind of advertising taking over editorial content, it really lowers the value proposition. I think that’s one of the reasons … it’s been hard to sell digital subscriptions.

Ken Doctor, media analyst

“It just pushes people away, but it also sends the readers a message about the value of that site,” Doctor said. “When you see this kind of advertising taking over editorial content, it really lowers the value proposition. I think that’s one of the reasons — only one, but one of the reasons — it’s been hard to sell digital subscriptions.”

The Albuquerque Journal is far from the only website where ads overshadow news content on the home page.

Austin Smith, CEO of the user experience consultancy Alley, said most legacy news organizations that are still trying to serve two masters on one page — the advertiser and the reader. Smith said that dual effort is a losing strategy.

“The page layout is optimized for the old thing,” said Smith, former entrepreneur-in-residence for the Lenfest Institute. “It’s optimized for a high number of page views rather than a deep level of engagement with a particular story. A classic example of that is the way that slideshow templates typically work, where you click to the next slide and you get a new ad.”

The ad revenue model isn’t the only thing tanking user experience on local news sites. Emily Goligoski, research director for the Membership Puzzle Project and former user experience research lead at the New York Times, said part of the problem is that nationally owned local news sites are beholden to a uniform, one-size-fits-all content management system not designed to accommodate local differences.

“There’s a lot of things that I think off-the-shelf software solutions are great for. Not everyone needs an accounting software that is bespoke, but actually what we’re talking about here is something that’s a little bit different,” Goligoski said. “This idea that we deliver for a particular format and we don’t really break that template very much is deeply concerning to me.”

Anna Derocher worked at the Rockford Register Star in Illinois for 17 years before she was laid off in May 2017. By the time she left, she had risen to managing editor. “I thought I’d die a journalist,” said Derocher, who now works as a marketing manager at an environmental and engineering firm.

... It just took some time and a lot of communication with the people who make the decisions at the corporate level. It took a couple of years, but eventually we had multiple templates from which to choose.

Anna Derocher, former Rockford Register Star Managing Editor

Derocher saw the Register Star transition from Gannett to GateHouse Media, and she helped staff weather waves of changes in companywide content management systems. She said she pushed for GateHouse to adopt a more adaptive content management system and GateHouse indeed made the switch, but it also saddled the relatively large Register Star newsroom with the same template as smaller weeklies.

“[If] the template is built for a newsroom that is smaller and doesn’t publish as much content, the larger properties are limited,” Derocher said. “So it just took some time and a lot of communication with the people who make the decisions at the corporate level. It took a couple of years, but eventually we had multiple templates from which to choose.”

Basic differences in newsrooms, like staff size, should be taken into account when designing a website, but Goligoski said news organizations should go further when building sites for user experience. Local news organizations should tailor their websites to the interests, attitudes, and lifestyles of the specific communities they serve, Goligoski said, adding that those needs can only be identified through routine, responsive audience engagement and research that explores users’ habits.

“We haven’t seen many of these organizations start with ‘What are the needs of my community members?’ and then design from there,” Goligoski said. “[Legacy local news organizations] just haven’t conducted the type of research and audience listening that organizations born today would be required to do to validate that they were serving audience need.”

That research should inform web design and user experience, Alley’s Smith said, but more importantly, it should dictate what types of content a local news organization produces in these staff-challenged times.

“I just don’t believe you need the shiniest website in the world to be indispensable to your audience,” Smith said, adding that his company, which advises news organizations with website design, doesn’t focus on “bells and whistles.”

“We’re after structure and organization that really helps the audience see and feel the value proposition of the news that they’re reading,” Smith said. “User experience can only serve you if you know your audience and you’re delivering the right content to them.”

Transitioning from ad revenue to reader revenue might help news organizations solve a litany of user experience problems. To make that switch, newsrooms need a serious culture change in which they feel energized by the challenges ahead, Smith said. But it’s impossible for a newsroom demoralized by years of layoffs and disinvestment to shift to a startup mindset without assurances that corporate leadership is standing firmly behind the newsrooms’ efforts to spend more time on producing quality content, Smith said.

If there were a sense of, ‘These are the problems we have to solve, management is behind this, the ownership is behind this,’ I don't see why it's not possible. We're just not seeing very much of that.

Austin Smith, CEO of Alley

“If there were a sense of, ‘These are the problems we have to solve, management is behind this, the ownership is behind this,’ I don’t see why it’s not possible,” Smith said. “We’re just not seeing very much of that.”

Fostering that energy means thinking about the journalists who will be putting content onto a news site when evaluating website design. Kelsey Keith, editor-in-chief of Vox’s Curbed, said that when Vox redesigned the companywide content management system for its verticals, journalists were top of mind.

“When the product team at our company is designing the platform itself, they’re actually considering two user groups,” Keith said. “They’re considering the people who actually make, produce, write, publish all the stuff, and then they’re also considering the people who read it.”

Keith framed factoring journalists into user experience as an investment in the public-facing product.

“Our whole ethos at our company is very much that we have a lot of smart people who work here who are passionate about what they’re covering and what they’re writing and we really want that to come through as much as possible to our audience, because they feel an affinity with what we’re publishing,” Keith said. “It’s a very circular sort of thing.”

Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative contributed to this report.

Article image public domain by Joseph Kenny Meadows (Old Book Illustrations)

About the author

Jeannette Hinkle

Writer

Hinkle, a master's student at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, is assisting the Local News Initiative in highlighting challenges and opportunities in today's local news ecosystem. Before coming to Northwestern, she reported for a set of GateHouse Media-owned newspapers on Boston's North Shore.

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